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Beavers, Otters

by Peggy Pickering Larson

Lewis Thomas, renowned scientist, essayist, and National Book Award recipient was often a practitioner of a reductionist approach to scientific matter, in which "the details, then the details of the details" are explored before extending a scientific investigation "to encompass the whole organism." When Thomas visited the Desert Museum he experienced a highly emotional, revelatory response to the beavers and otters, not as a sum of their parts as he was accustomed to, but as whole, complete living entities, and he wrote of this experience.

"The designers there have cut a deep pathway between two small artificial ponds, walled by clear glass, so when you stand in the center of the path you can look into the depths of each pool, and at the same time you can regard the surface. In one pool, on the right side of the path, is a family of otters; on the other side, a family of beavers. Within just a few feet from your face, on either side, beavers and otters are at play, underwater and on the surface, swimming toward your face and then away, more filled with life than any creatures I have ever seen before, in all my days. Except for the glass, you could reach across and touch them.

I was transfixed. As I now recall it, there was only one sensation in my head: pure elation mixed with amazement at such perfection. Swept off my feet, I floated from one side to the other, swiveling my brain, staring astounded at the beavers, then at the otters. I could hear shouts across my corpus callosum, from one hemisphere to the other. I remember thinking, with what was left in charge of my consciousness, that I wanted no part of the science of beavers and otters. .. . I hoped never to have to think of them as collections of cells. All I asked for was the full hairy complexity, then in front of my eyes, of whole, intact beavers and otters in motion...

I came away from the zoo with something, a piece of news about myself: I am coded, somehow, for otters and beavers. I exhibit instinctive behavior in their presence, when they are displayed close at hand behind glass, simultaneously below water and at the surface. I have receptors for this display. . .We are stamped with stereotyped, unalterable patterns of response, ready to be released. And the behavior released in us, by such confrontations, is, essentially, a surprised affection."

From Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail, Penguin Books, 1995